Despite exit, Nadal enjoys relative success at ATP Finals

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LONDON — Rafael Nadal is leaving the ATP Finals with a big trophy, even though he failed again to secure the title at the elite tournament.

Nadal was eliminated in the group stage of the season-ending event on Friday, but could still look back on a successful week after edging out Novak Djokovic for the year-end No. 1 ranking.

To mark that achievement, Nadal was presented on court with a trophy by the ATP at the O2 Arena after he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in his final round-robin match. It’s the fifth time he finishes the year as No. 1, and enough to make sure he leaves London with a feeling of satisfaction despite the early exit.

“Having this with me is something unexpected and very emotional for me,” Nadal said. “Honestly, after all the things that I went through in my career in terms of injuries, I never thought that at the age of 33 +, I would have this trophy in my hands again.”

Nadal tied with Djokovic, Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors with five year-end No. 1s, one behind Pete Sampras’ record.

Djokovic’s chances to overtake Nadal and equal Sampras’ mark ended when he lost to Federer on Thursday and was eliminated.

At 33, Nadal is the oldest man to top the season’s final ranking list. What’s even more remarkable is that this one came 11 years after he first finished as No. 1 in 2008 – a record-long gap.

“To have this trophy with me with this big gap between the first time until today, 11 years, is a big thing,” Nadal said. “I don’t know if somebody did it or not, but it is something difficult, because 11 years since the first time until the fifth is a big number.”

Nadal finished the group-stage with a 2-1 record but that wasn’t enough to advance after defending champion Alexander Zverev beat Daniil Medvedev in the final round-robin match to finish ahead of the Spaniard based on the tournament’s tiebreaker rules.

If Zverev had lost, Nadal would have faced Federer in the semifinals for another installment in their long-running rivalry.

Nadal also has two more Grand Slam titles to look back on this year, the French Open and U.S. Open, bringing his total to 19. But he has never won the ATP Finals despite qualifying for a 15th year in a row. He has had to pull out of the tournament on six occasions because of injuries and reached the final only twice, the last time in 2013.

Still, the Spaniard was more than happy with his progress this week after coming into the event without hardly any practice time since an abdominal injury forced him to pull out of the Paris Masters semifinals this month.

He looked far from his best in losing to Zverev in his opener on Monday. But in his second match, he saved a match point while trailing 5-1 in the third set against Medvedev before completing an improbable comeback, and he came from a set down to beat Tsitsipas on Friday as well.

Before the ATP Finals, Nadal had not completed a tournament since winning the U.S. Open. But his rapid improvement in London has been a big confidence booster ahead of the Davis Cup at home in Madrid next week.

“I played two matches close to three hours, but in some ways that helps, because if I’m able to hold these kind of matches … that’s what I needed because my preparation was not the ideal one for here,” Nadal said. “I go to Madrid with positive confidence that I am playing better and better. For me that was important, more than being in that semifinals or not.”

Australian Open director: Novak Djokovic’s hamstring had 3-cm tear

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Novak Djokovic played at the Grand Slam event with a muscle tear of 3 centimeters – a little more than an inch – in his left hamstring along the way to winning the championship.

“He gets a bad rap, but at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone can question his athleticism. This guy, I did see, he had a 3-centimeter tear in his hammy,” Tiley said in an interview.

“The doctors are … going to tell you the truth,” Tiley said. “I think there was a lot of speculation of whether it was true or not. It’s hard to believe that someone can do what they do with those types of injuries. But he’s remarkable.”

Djokovic won the trophy at Melbourne Park by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets for a record-extending 10th title there and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam trophy overall. Rafael Nadal is the only other man who has won that many majors.

The triumph also allowed Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia hurt his hamstring during a tune-up tournament in Adelaide ahead of the Australian Open. He wore a heavy bandage on his left thigh and was visited by trainers during matches in Week 1 in Melbourne.

He said he took “a lot” of painkiller pills and did various treatments to help the leg.

“Let me put it like this: I don’t say 100%, but 97% of the players, when you get results of the MRI, you go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament,” Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said after the final. “But not him. … His brain is working different.”

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

2023 Australian Open - Day 13
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MELBOURNE, Australia – One point away from her first Grand Slam title, Aryna Sabalenka faulted. And then she faulted again. She grimaced. She yelled and turned her back to the court. She wiggled her shoulders and exhaled.

Clearly, this business of winning the Australian Open was not bound to happen without a bit of a struggle Saturday night. Sabalenka knew deep inside that would be the case. She also knew that all of the effort she put in, to overcome self-doubt and those dreaded double-faults, had to pay off eventually. Just had to.

And so, as she wasted a second match point by flubbing a forehand, and a third by again missing another, Sabalenka did her best to stay calm, something she used to find quite difficult. She hung in there until a fourth chance to close out Elena Rybakina presented itself – and this time, Sabalenka saw a forehand from her similarly powerful foe sail long. That was that. The championship belonged to Sabalenka via a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over Wimbledon winner Rybakina.

“The last game, yeah, of course, I was a little bit nervous. I (kept) telling myself, like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy.’ You just have to work for it, work for it, ’til the last point,” said Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus who is now 11-0 with two titles in 2023 and will rise to No. 2 in the WTA rankings on Monday.

“I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions,” she said, “and win this one.”

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the post-match ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy – she referred to them as “the craziest team on tour.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final and had been 0-3 in Slam semifinals until this week. “We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Well, she had a lot to do with it, of course. Those serves that produced 17 aces, helping erase the sting of seven double-faults. Those hammered groundstrokes and relentlessly aggressive style that produced 51 winners, 20 more than Rybakina’s total. And, despite her go-for-broke shotmaking, somehow Sabalenka limited her unforced error count to 28. One more key statistic: Sabalenka managed to accrue 13 break points, converting three, including the one at 4-3 in the last set that put her ahead for good.

“She played really well today,” said Rybakina, who has lost all four matches she’s played against Sabalenka, all in three sets. “She was strong mentally, physically.”

While the latter has long been a hallmark of her game, even Sabalenka acknowledges that the first has been an issue.

Her most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Capable of delivering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including matches with more than 20.

After much prodding from her group, she agreed to undergo an overhaul of her mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to keep her emotions in check – she used to work with a sports psychologist but no longer, saying she relies on herself now – is really paying off.

“She didn’t have great serve last year, but now she was super strong and she served well,” said Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan. “For sure, I respect that. I know how much work it takes.”

With seagulls squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded serious racket swings for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The serves were big. So big. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph (195 kph), Sabalenka’s at 119 mph (192 kph).

The points were over quickly. So quickly: Seven of the first 13 were aces.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, but Rybakina did it twice in the opening set.

And never again. Sabalenka resolved to take the initiative even more, and the payoff for her high-risk, high-reward attitude was too much for Rybakina to withstand over the last two sets.

Sabalenka said ahead of time that she expected to feel some jitters. Which makes perfect sense for anyone: This was the most important match of her career.

At the end, when it mattered more than ever, Sabalenka was able to steady herself. After the final point, she dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Quite a difference from a year ago at Melbourne Park, when Sabalenka departed after 15 double-faults in a fourth-round loss.

“I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me,” Sabalenka said at her post-match news conference, her new trophy nearby and a glass of bubbly in her hand. “I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”